Mathias stared at the chest-high pile of Wyvern dung.
"One-tenth of the final sale if I sift through this for treasure?"
"Yep." Gwen stood a little distance back, one hand holding back Elvia. The stench of digested Troll was a horror unto itself, more to those with fine-tuned senses.
"You expect me, a Knight of St Michael, to dig through—"
"I don't expect anything." Gwen hand-waved the Knight's protest. "But I am offering the opportunity to learn a valuable lesson."
Mathias took a deep breath, then immediately regretted taking said breath.
"No," the Knight declined. "I'll not be made a fool, Miss Song, even if you are Lord Shultz's sister-in-craft. You may humiliate me, but you cannot humiliate my Ordo."
"Suit yourself." Gwen turned to their other two companions, equally transfixed by the sight they had to endure. Elsewhere, Golos rested after surviving the bowel movement, surrounded by the press, who were taking notes and asking the Thunder Wyvern questions about Huangshan. "So, who else is game for the Golos Lottery? You have my personal guarantee that you won't regret it."
"Gwen, this is hardly proper," Ollie Edwards, Praelector, advised his college sister. "You're going to tarnish our reputation."
"In contrary, you'll be pleasantly surprised, I think." Gwen smiled sweetly. "Trust me."
"Ah-ha." Ollie raised a finger. "I would like to contest that point. You did leave me in Cambridge and fly off by yourself."
"Only to save our Dwarven friend here through serendipity and goodwill." Gwen winked at Hanmoul, who waved back sheepishly. "Did you enjoy the show, Mister Bronzebeard? I've a deft hand when it comes to Trolls."
"Bronzeborn." Hanmoul fought back a cough. The girl was very tall, and her bearing was sufficiently intimidating to make him want to step into his Golem plates.
"Apologies, Commandrumm Bronzeborn."
"Please, I am but a humble Engineer," the Dwarf replied nervously. "And aye, that was a terrific show of force, lass, I'll not deny yer that. Ya can call me Hanmoul, by the by. It's not like ye surface-Humans ken the ancestor's histories."
"Right," Gwen agreed. "Nonetheless, I am happy to see our ally unmolested by the uncivilised denizens of the region."
"Yer came at the right time, that's fer sure."
"So, any takers on the pile?"
"Nay lass, I am not for gold diving."
The trio fell silent. Earlier, when Golos evacuated his bowels, Gwen had charged toward the steaming mountain as though the Wyvern had shat HDMs. Now, the outrageous offer she made was turning heads and stiffing lips all around.
"Do you mind if I try?" A hand raised from the crowd of stickybeaks. "I am a Water Mage, so…"
The speaker was a dapper gent in olive trousers, a striped-vest and a salmon shirt. From the recorder hanging from his hip, they could guess that he was a journalist. "Dominic Lorenzo, at your service."
"Oh!" Gwen clapped, her eyes lit up. "You're Dominic! I am so sorry, I had no idea—"
"Quite alright." Dominic joined the circle, taking a picture of the pile. "Dung Diving, eh? It's an old, Welsh custom. I am surprised you know of it. Our Dwarven friend here certainly does."
"Of course, an OLD custom." The sorceress' complexion flushed a little. "Thanks for calling out your colleagues, Dom. I know it cost them a pretty penny to Teleport out here."
"Bah, they're laughing from here to Monday. A fantastic hand you played, by the way. Your performance really is one for the front pages, provided nothing cataclysmic happens between now and final print."
"Thanks." The girl's eyes took in Lorenzo's well-trained figure. "So, you said you wanted to have a go?"
"I did." Lorenzo took another picture. "In exchange, will you give me an exclusive?"
"Are you a reporter yourself, Mister Lorenzo?"
"I am with the Guardian." The man nodded. " Could I get the lot of you standing beside the dung?"
"I don't know about that." Mathias raised both hands.
"Perfect." Lorenzo de-materialised the lumen-recorder. "Now, let's see if my history lessons have paid off, or if my anthropology professor was full of Dragon dung."
The others, including Gwen, took a long step back from the body of water conjured by the journalist.
"Prestidigitation!" Alesia's ally inexpertly managed his Conjuration-cum-Transmutation. Carefully, the man separated the solids, sending the sludge far away while extracting what could be worthwhile. When he was done, seven cores remained.
Five of the Cores looked like sickly-green ambergris, verified by a helpful Hanmoul as belonging to veteran Troll Warriors. The remaining two were a little more particular. One was shaped like a misshapen mace the size of an infant's head, while the final article was a smooth, kidney-shaped block of blood amber.
"Golos had better not passed a kidney stone," Gwen muttered, studying the larger of the two "Cores".
"Seven Cores!" Ollie was beside himself with shock. "There are SEVEN cores in that pile of—"
Besides the Praelector, Mathias' face grew redder than Lady Rothwell's heirloom beet. What had Gunther's sister said? She would give one-tenth the value of the proceeds to the man who scoops the poop?
"Holy shit! Boy, am I glad old Ducksworth was right on the HDM." Dominic made sure to dispose of the excess excrement discretely. "For the uninitiated, Dung Diving was what the pre-industrial folk used to do. Too weak to hunt or tame Magical Monsters, they followed in the wake of upper-tier creatures. Sometimes, the bottom of a cliff where Dragons lived could turn out to be a mecca of Creature Cores. You've heard of fishermen snagging giant clumps of poo of the shallows, haven't you? Those are the compressed evacuations of Sea Dragons. Break open a good one, and you could change your fortune in a heart-beat."
"I've never heard of such a thing." Ollie was very much impressed. "I shall look into it."
Hanmoul's beard twitched, as did Mathias, who did his best to mask his raging dismay.
"Yes, that's what I was going for." Gwen nodded sagely. "Now, let's check. Dominic, can you do the honours?"
A few of the other reporters approached, drawn by the commotion caused by the chattering group.
"Identify!" Dominic began with the Troll Cores, expertly demonstrating his principle School of Magic. "— and here's where the real lottery begins."
"Oh… Oh my, this is in no way mundane."
"A Spirit?" Gwen's eyes lit up with invisible currency signs. "Is it a Spirit? Or a mutated Core? Or—"
"A Spirit!" Dominic tossed the kidney-shaped Core from hand to hand like a hot potato. "Christ! A Blood Core! Who would have thought! You know, Dragons usually drain all Essence from the Cores. Either this was one wilful Hag, or your Wyvern's had a little too much to eat."
"Amazing!" Ollie leaned in closer. "I've never seen such a high-tier Core, not fresh from the beast, anyhow. Dung Diving is amazing!"
The Dwarf appeared contemplative. Hag Cores were definitely Vadam.
Mathias let loose an audible groan. Feeling his Faith tremble, the Knight opted to go for a walk to cool his head.
"Lucky you," Gwen congratulated the jubilant reporter. "What's it look like?"
"Tier 7 or 8, but this is a Demi-human caster's Core! Its Spirit could provide multiple boons, assuming the right Master could be found."
Gwen instantly looked to Elvia, who furiously shook her head. Obviously, the girl wasn't looking to gain a THIRD Spirit, certainly not one as filled with malevolence as a Hag.
The other reporters closed in, snapping lumen-pics.
"What's it worth?" Gwen appraised the unexpected treasure.
"Oh, I wouldn't sell it for HDMs." The reporter turned the stone over and over in his head. "But I do know who might be very interested. There are favours that money can't buy. Do you trust me to act as your broker, Gwen?"
"Of course— I'll tell you what. Whatever it's worth, I'll peg you a monetary reward to the nearest evaluation. Not an HDM less. Now, let's get a pic to commemorate your windfall!" The sorceress motioned for her present company to gather. Retrieving the Spirit-imbued Core from Dominic, she made them all pose beside Elvia, who was made to hug the huge haul against her chest with a pained expression. Dominic may have washed the Cores, but the steaming stench of Golos' remains lay only a metre away, tenderly reminding the Cleric she wasn't out of the poop just yet.
"Where's Mathias?" Elvia looked around for her Knight.
"He's figuring out how to kick his own arse, I bet. I've never seen someone refusing free HDMs before." Gwen positioned herself between Dominic, Ollie and Hanmoul, with Elvia standing in front of them all. "Everyone— Thanks for coming to the Dung Diving session! Say— EE!"
The lumen-globe flashed.
In Elvia's arms, the Hag-Core scintillated.
The Waterhouse Tavern.
If someone had told Gwen that she would one day sit in front of a bona fide Dwarf in a fantasy inn with actual oaken caskets behind the bar, drinking Dwarf-Rum, she would have asked how many Mojitos they've had.
"I don't much care about yer intent or if ye mean it or nay." Hanmoul eyed the tankard in front of Gwen suspiciously, wondering how the girl was holding her liquor. "But a Bronzeborn will nay renege on a debt, not on yer life."
Gwen drew another cup from the keg.
"Alright, alright, no need to get bristly. I'll take credit for bailing you out of that fiasco on the mount, but not the Gulch— That was done for Evee."
"No matter, yer on land belonging to the Citadel," Hanmoul insisted. "Where the line is drawn, we nae tolerate Trollies, be it the Dim or the lidless plains. Besides, our Kings nae have a defence treaty."
"We don't?" Gwen looked to Ollie, who sat sipping peppermint tea, thankful for the roaring, crackling hearth.
"London has enjoyed a tentative relationship with the gentlefolk of the Red Citadel," Ollie explained for his younger House-sister. "The bitterness from the Beast Tide has yet to recede."
"Well, Humans didn't come ter our aid either." Hanmoul shrugged. "I wouldnae worry, though. Yer surface lubbers hold grudges for a few decades before yer old ones die out. Now a Dwarf, we can hold a grudge fer centuries, sometimes millennia. Me Nan still recalls the time Erik Founderson stole 'er sweet roll oan 'er fiftieth birthday, and that dink's a Forge Chief now."
"I still don't get why you're putting yourself in debt?" Gwen cocked her head. "I would have Purged the Trolls regardless."
"Because those Trollies would have made it into the Dim sooner or later. They were harvesting crystals, same as ye, to power their rituals, fatten up their war reserves. If that Hag and her retinue passed the Dim into the Deep, our Kin would have warred. Who kens how many lives would be lost?"
"That's stretching it a bit far."
"I'll take prevention over than a messy scrum lass, just accept it. Now, what do yer fancy as a reward? Crystals? Precious minerals? A diamond or a dozen? I heard from Ollie that Human ladettes love shiny rocks."
"I said no such thing," Ollie objected. "Sir Hanmoul, I do protest—"
"But I do like shiny rocks." Gwen mulled over the offer. She understood where the Dwarf was coming from, but really, she had no real interest in a monetary reward. With the Hag Core and the other loot, Gwen could arguably add another five to ten thousand HDMs to her war chest. Compared to when she could get ventures running in London, however, these one-time windfalls felt unsatisfying.
"Don't be shy, lass." Hanmoul drained his cup. "The Bronzeborn isn't so poor as to turn down a wee request from a lass."
"Ollie, what do you think?" Gwen thought maybe her Praelector had a better idea.
"Is there something wrong with asking for currency?" Ollie raised a brow. "Gwen, you're going to need crystals for research materials, lab hire, room and board, extra tuition, training arenas, and supplementary quasi-magical foodstuffs. The expenses could be as high as two or three thousand per annum!"
If Elvia was here, the Cleric would have spat out her drink.
Fortunately, the healer was out of action after just two sips of Dwarven rum. Presently, she was resting in Gwen's habitat, guarded by a melancholic, rum-loathing Mathias.
"Naw. I don't have a—" Gwen's tongue searched the cavern of her mouth for a word. "— Let's just say I got enough HDMs."
"A Magic Item then?" Hanmoul offered. "We have some of the best Rune Crafters this side of the Dim."
Gwen shook her head. She wasn't desperate for items either— unless the Dwarves wanted to offer her a Gunther Ring. But a race of Earthen folk without a mutual defence pact with London Tower weren't likely going to have a contract servicing a Contingency Ring. Even if they did, would she want to Contingency into a Dwarf-home?
"Actually." A thought flashed upon her inward-eye. Her mind was full of the scenes from the Mines of Moria. One of her greatest peeves was that none of the films showed a thriving Dwarven city. "Hanmoul, could you take me on a tour of your home town? I've never been to a Demi-human city before, much less a Dwarven one."
Which wasn't true, Elvia later pointed out. What Gwen meant was that she had never been to one that she hadn't razed. Earlier in the Void Sorceress' occupation, she had visited a Water Monkey Den— which she Purged. She had also attended a Merman village— which Caliban ate wholesale. There was also the Troll Temple in Amazonia— yet another city she razed to the last block of lichen-covered stones. And of course, there was Shenyang.
Hanmoul appeared hesitant.
"Gwen, you can't just demand to waltz into a sovereign territory!" Ollie hissed beside her. "You're going to cause a diplomatic incident!"
"I see. I am sorry I asked," Gwen retracted her offer.
"Nae." Hanmoul scratched his bushy beard. "Too late now, lass— Yer asked, and it shall be done. Give me a few days, mebbe a week to clear the request with the council. Them Deepdowners are gonnae to be right pissed."
"It's fine, really." Gwen shook her head vigorously. "It was a stupid whim."
This time, it was Hanmoul who raised his hand. "Its fine, lass. I don't know if ye'd be seeing the Forge, but ye can visit me Clan's compound, at least. Are yer sure that's all ya want, lass? Yer Human leaders are bound to ask for Dwarven Tech. They usually do."
Ollie Edwards looked from Gwen to the Dwarven friend he'd made on the way. How was he supposed to know the answer? Was he a Tower Magister? He was responsible for Gwen not making a laughingstock of herself, not for Spellcraft espionage in a Dwarven under-city. "I don't know. Mayhap we should consult the House Matron."
"Then it's settled. Don't worry, lass. You'll not leave uncompensated! I'll have the Quarter Master dredge up some pressies." Hanmoul raised his stein.
"Cheers to you, Master Bronzeborn." The two clashed tankards. "When next we drink in a Dwarven tavern, I'll be sure to supply some of the best rice wine in the Human world. May the best drinker remain upright!"
"Ha!" Hanmoul laughed. "That's a boast I like!"
Gwen felt aflutter with excitement. A Dwarven city! What would it be like? A giant forge? An enormous tunnel-based city-state? Or perhaps, a cavernous cathedral as far as the eye could see, glowing with magma.
"Say." Gwen glanced at the tavern's low ceiling, thinking of her dearest, sweetest companion. "Do you think I could bring a plus-one?"
Across from her, Ollie appeared taken back. His face flushed from his pointed nose to his tapered years. "I— I don't know what to say, Gwen. It's an honour…"
The next morning, Gwen, Ollie, Elvia, and Mathias packed for London.
Last night, Commandrum Hanmoul— satisfied that a resolution had been reached, had retreated back to the Red Citadel in a blur, crashing through the snow in his pill-bug Strider.
Likewise, Dominic Lorenzo had left with the rest of the reporters, saying he would be in touch and that he would contact Gwen when he received news from a potential buyer. The reward, Dominic reiterated, wasn't necessary, and that she should keep the money for her tuition.
When the time came to leave, another complication ensued. Of the foursome, Gwen rocked an unlimited flight licence; Mathias possessed a conditional one, and their two non-combatant companions were land-bound. Though Gwen flexibly believed that flying in the wilderness was a case of "What does it matter if you shit in the woods if there's no one to see it..." Mathias and Ollie were sticklers when it came to rules.
Thankfully, as the heroine of Merthyr Tydfil, Gwen had no trouble commissioning a team of prospectors to conjure up an eight AM ride out of town down to Newport, connected by barge to Bristol. There, they could ride the local ISTC to Cambridge, then back to London and Nightingale's.
Once the truck arrived, Magister Hanford offered a warm farewell to the Void Sorceress, as well as his contact Glyph. "I'd like to say call me if there's anything you need, but it's truer to say I would be calling on you."
"Anytime, Magister." Gwen received the contact Glyph with her Device. "I welcome your guidance."
"I'll let the boys know what I've seen here." Hanford put forth the most sincere face he could manage. "The Militant Faction could use someone headstrong and qualm-free: a Combat Mage on the warpath! I've no doubt someone may be in contact very soon."
"Ha!" Gwen hid her awkwardness. She hadn't known the Magister belonged to the one Faction with whom she had not brokered a formal relationship. "Thank you, Magister, I look forward to it."
Later, her buttocks bouncing on the back of the cargo lorry, Gwen asked Elvia what they could do in London, as a pair.
"Perhaps Miss Lindholm could attend milady Astor's Christmas Mass?" Mathias reminded his charge. "I am sure Miss Emily is attending, as well."
"Oh, yes!" Elvia lit up. "Gwen, we can go together! Cliveden is absolutely astounding! It's the biggest house I have ever seen! Bigger than a town!"
"I do love a good Estate," Gwen cooed. "What else is good? In London proper, I mean."
"I recommend Hyde Park." Ollie piped up. "There are several places where our nation's leaders gave speeches to the public. Including the Speaker's Corner, where NoMs can debate Mages and vice-versa without fear. It's one of the specialities of London's intellectual circle. After a pleasant chat, you could take a picnic, or row a boat across the lake."
"Oh, that sounds wonderful," Gwen gushed.
"Then there's Westminster. If you're interested, winter break is as a good time as any to see the Lords and Ladies of the Mageocracy attending ceremonies and Masses. Likewise, the Cathedral still holds mass every weekend, and the Queen's Mass will be taking place there on the twenty-fourth."
"Excellent idea! May I ask where the shopping's at?" Gwen inquired of the two boys. "You know, for shoes and dresses of the magical variety?"
"I wouldn't know." Ollie inadvertently looked his House-sister up and down. Presently, the sorceress wore a skirt, stockings and a sheer blouse. Comparatively, Ollie was bundled up to the neck, Mathias wore his winter uniform, and Elvia had on a coat and scarf. "Do you not have sufficient attire? The university offers an assortment of humble, semi-formal wear, hand-made by the NoMs who live in the nearby villages. You can get them glamoured in town."
"I think Gwen means a place like Shoreditch— or Harrolds," Elvia interceded. "Emily frequents the shops there. There, you can find luxury goods, trinket crafters, Enchanter-weavers, and so on."
"That's the ticket." Gwen gave her friend a thumbs up. "We'll go and drop some crystals."
"You could visit a museum…" Mathias advised with a measured tone. "Something sufficiently patriotic, of course. There's the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square for the arts, the Royal Natural History Museum with its collection of preserved Magical Beasts, or the Britannic Spellcraft Museum for a history of the arts. My favourite is the War Memorial at Lamberth detailing the exploits of the Mageocracy's greatest Magisters since colonisation began. There's an entry on Lord Gunther..."
"Is there a Globe Theatre?" Gwen asked suddenly, interrupting the droning Mathias. "Shakespeare, you know? William Shakespeare? To be, or not to be?"
"Who?" Mathias cocked his head, being new to Gwenisms. "Is he an Illusionist?"
"Romeo and Juliet?"
The trio looked from each other to one another.
Gwen's lips turned in disappointment.
"Are there stage shows in London? Like, you know— theatre. Guys and Dolls acting out plays, singing and dancing?"
Mathias laughed. "Why? Do you not have them in Sydney? Or Shanghai?"
"Well." Gwen felt her heart sink. Where the hell did Baron Andrew Lloyd Webber go? The genius showman had better not died on the front lines. "Are there theatres or not?"
"Sure." Mathias nodded. "The larger ones are located here and there around Trafalgar Square, mostly playing musicals, operas, Epics and so on. The Perils of Odysseus has been playing for years now, without waning in popularity."
"Oh, thank God." Gwen breathed out. "And do any of these shows involve a pair of star-crossed lovers whose misadventure doth overthrow their parent's strife through a passage of fatal love?"
"That sounds amazing." Elvia's eyes blinked with anticipation. "Which story is this?"
"Don't worry. It's a fancy, nothing more…" Gwen puckered her lips, her mind a tapestry of possibilities, stitched with guilt and dread. "What do folk do for fun around here?"
"I train, mostly," Mathias confessed. "I'll admit— once, I saw a picture show for NoMs. It was about the Falklands Expedition. One of my Seniors saw it while stationed in Gibraltar and wouldn't stop talking about it. The plot involved a medical officer who, tired of the endless conflict, treated both Human and Elvish combatants, eventually bringing about a ceasefire and a treaty."
"I saw that one too," Ollie replied excitedly. "Magus Caine was excellent as Cleric Commander Simon Lambert. Miss Collins made an excellent Matron Roseville as well."
"She was much more beautiful than the real Magus Roseville…"
"Mattie, don't let the Magus hear that," Elvia chided Mathias. "I see the Matron around at GOS sometimes."
"Have you seen 'The Risen Sun' Mathias?"
"I am not a fan of the pictures, just the fighting ones. 'The Last Knight', for example..."
Gwen turned away from the others to regard the disappearing path behind the lorry. In this parallel, magical world, some things survived, others were extinguished. There was a Ray Bradbury time-travelling spiel somewhere, but even so, the loss of the arts to such a degree made her heart sore. In her old world, the politicians often said that there's no "harm" done in not wanting to fund the liberal arts. The artists, of course, protested that defunding the arts deprived the people of vicarious compassion— an act that included all conceivable "harm".
Was the casual cruelty of the Mage world the result of a constant, existential threat of extinction? Or was it class apathy and the lack of progressive education? In a world where all human potential steered toward survival, then expansion, what energy remained to plumb the depth of the human soul? Was the lack of literature why in the Mages' society, there existed so little empathy for the NoMs?
If so, what was there to be done?
And how did she stand to profit?